THE Democrats are gearing up to exploit one of their biggest advantages in the fall election - the gender gap. Unlike the convention of 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro galvanized women delegates, the Democratic get-together in Atlanta seems conspicuously free of talk about ``women's issues'' and feminist battle cries. The reason is clear: Women's concerns are now embodied in a host of economic-related family issues in the party platform.
``Our agenda has become the party's agenda,'' says Marlene Johnson, the lieutenant governor of Minnesota. ``The ERA is in the platform, too. So we're more and more focusing our attention on increasing the numbers of women elected to office and thus the capacity to implement the program.''
It is economic pressures felt by women as well as men that are propelling the Democratic Party to stress job security, adequate housing, child care, parental leave, health care, and other family issues. Some 60 percent of all women with children are in the workplace today.
``Women are the `new-collar workers' in the economy, so it's a new day,'' says US Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado who almost became a presidential candidate herself. ``But one-half of them are making less than $10,000 a year and that tells you we have to get out and make sure that civil rights and other laws are enforced.''
Democratic activists, motivated by the platform, will now fan out to educate and register as many women - and men - voters as possible.
``There's been a change from fighting with our voice to creating a wedge that will go out and take advantage of the gender gap,'' says Joanne Alter, a delegate from Chicago and a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). ``The responsibility of the candidates and the politicians is to make this gap a reality and translate it into votes. All the Democratic issues today are women's issues.''
Republicans no less than Democrats are acutely conscious that 10 million more women than men will vote in November. They could make the difference in the presidential choice.
But polls show that women prefer the Democrats over the Republicans by at least a dozen points - hence the term ``gender gap.'' They also show women preferring Michael Dukakis over George Bush. One recent poll found 38 percent of all women rating Mr. Bush unfavorably, as against 10 percent for Governor Dukakis.
``I doubt Bush can close that gap,'' says Helen Boosalis, former mayor of Lincoln, Neb. ``Mike Dukakis has established himself on the record on women's issues - in practice not just rhetoric.''
The prominence of women in leadership at the Democratic convention and in the campaign is viewed as a measure of the progress made. Among those playing key roles are Ann Richards, a Texas politician who delivered the keynote address; Susan Estrich, Dukakis's campaign manager; Eleanor Holmes Norton, Jesse Jackson's platform negotiator; and Sharon Pratt Dixon, treasurer of the DNC.
``Ann Richards's speech could not have been given four years ago - [a speech] where women's concerns become the national agenda,'' Madeleine Kunin, governor of Vermont and a co-chair of the DNC, told several hundred women at a meeting of the National Women's Political Caucus.
Now that their principal concerns are integrated into the party's national agenda, a key objective of women activists is to expand the number of women officeholders at every level. The figures are steadily but slowly climbing. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University:
In 1969 there were only 301 women in state legislatures (4 percent); in '88, 1,175 (15.8 percent).
Among the 100 largest cities in the nation, 12 have women mayors; and among the 10 largest cities three - Houston, Dallas, and San Diego - have women mayors.
Out of a total of 330 executive positions at the state level, women hold 40 or 12.1 percent.
There are three women governors - Vermont, Nebraska, and Arizona - and five lieutenant governors.
Women hold 23 seats in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate (about 5 percent of the total).
In the eyes of most women, more and faster progress needs to be made. Says Susan Carroll, senior research associate of the center:
``If you look over two decades there have been significant increases. Congress is the hardest nut to crack. There have been more gains at the state and county levels, though at no level do women hold more than 16 percent of the offices.''
There is a palpable sense here in Atlanta that women - and men - are coming of age. Delegates speak with pride of the battles fought.
``I was the first black women to hold an elected office in the town of Tchula, Miss.,'' says Jessie D. Banks, a grandmother and former school teacher. ``I was the only woman on the board of aldermen and I let them know that I'm a woman and that genes have nothing to do with my thinking capacity.''
``But women still have a long way to go,'' adds the Jackson delegate. ``Some of our men still seem to think that a woman's place is at home but I think a woman has the right to be whatever her ability allows her to be.''
Delegates tell of Democratic plans to get out the vote. Noreene Koan, a flight attendant from Belmont, Calif., says the party will spend $2 million to $3 million in California toward this end. Barbara Seabolt, an alternate from Baltimore County, Md., speaks of plans for registration drives in high schools and shopping malls.
Dukakis appears to have won respect among the women at this convention.
``There's a good feeling about the Duke and the fact that he is supportive of women,'' says Anne Perkins, a lawyer and delegate from Baltimore. So women's groups that we have identified with in the past want to work together to elect him.''